I’m always fascinated by the differentiated use of languages in multilingual situations (see this post for a great example from Madagascar), and I’ve run across one in my current reading, Anatol Lieven’s superb examination of the reasons for Russia’s disastrous loss in the First Chechen War, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power. Lieven is discussing dedovshchina (literally ‘granddadism’), the brutal hazing endemic to the Russian army at least since WWII, and he quotes a Chechen who as a young conscript spent time in the Soviet army in East Germany in the early ’80s:
The ‘granddads’ forced the younger soldiers to buy useless things from them, hand over all their pay—and 20 marks a month was all we got. One young soldier in my squad had had to give most of his pay for a broken clock. I took it to the ‘granddad’, asked him, ‘Why did you sell him this?’ He cursed me. Now we Chechens don’t lightly curse each other—for us, this is a serious business. I broke the clock over his head. I got another three days in the cooler for that…
The footnote on this passage includes this illuminating remark:
Incidentally, it is not quite true that Chechens do not use the Russian expression, ‘xxxx your mother!’ when speaking to each other; but they only do so when speaking in Russian—in which language, among Russian men (thanks partly to generations of military service), it has become so common under Soviet rule as to lose all meaning. Spoken in Chechen, I was told, this would indeed be a killing matter.